Several months ago, I was approached by a journalist who wanted to discuss with me his hypothesis, a rather popular one if this year’s press is any indication, that the current widespread interest in the occult is the result of people adapting to these troubled times. He was not at all alone in this assertion, which has produced a number of news pieces rehearsing the same general theme: Young people are turning to magic and other esoteric pursuits as a way of coping with the chaos of the world around them, attempting to create meaning in a deeply unstable world. I expect the journalist was quite disappointed and maybe a bit surprised when I flatly disagreed with him. Yes, our current world is a very strange place, but the occult has always been here. It’s just that sometimes the media pays more attention than others.
The reality about the occult, and I include witchcraft as a subset of occult and esoteric practice, is that it sits within the wider spectrum of human religiosity, but it has mostly flown under the radar, especially if you are white and middle class. Activities which get labeled as “occult”, such as astrology, tarot cards, and spell craft, frequently occur outside of or are practiced in parallel with what we consider to be traditional religions, and for many people they have not historically been a part of a religious identity. As a result, we haven’t always had a good measure of how many people participate in occult and esoteric practices and the ways in which they value them. Religious Witchcraft (Wicca) and Paganism gains visibility (and legitimacy) when we can gather numbers on a census, but how do we know how many people get tarot readings or use astrologers? We don’t. But it’s likely that a lot of people do, and always have. I went to college in the late 1980s in Sarasota, FL, where Ruby the Psychic has operated a storefront for over 40 years. She is still there, so she must have a steady stream of clients. Good metaphysical shops and botanicas can have quite a stable existence over decades. This does not suggest merely a trend. What it does suggest is that there are a lot of folks out there who have a more complex understanding of how the universe works than we like to imagine.
Despite this popular hypothesis that a rise in occult activities correlates with times of uncertainty, some of the most important moments in western esoteric history occurred in the middle of the 20th century, after the crisis of World War Two was over, and relative economic stability and expansion allowed for people to push the envelope more openly. The first real twentieth century popular witchcraft explosion starts in the mid- 1950s and early 1960s in Britain, prior to the mix of the counterculture with any occult revival. As Christina Oakley-Harrington noted in her keynote lecture at the 2019 Magickal Women Conference a lot of modern religious witchcraft is practiced at home and indoors, which speaks to an increase in personal space and domestic privacy, clearly linked to upwardly changing fortunes, not precarity.
I see two real problems with the assertion that interest in the occult is primarily motivated by times of crisis: First, when we frame occult practices as being fundamentally reactive to global events, embedded in this proposition is the tacit suggestion that there will eventually be a return to “normal”, and then people will drop their interest in magic. This viewpoint supposes a normative state of a rational world which simply does not exist. Now, I am not saying that these are not extraordinary and utterly weird times. Oh yes, they are. But it’s not as though the world will one day return to its “usual” stable state and then interest in the occult will disappear. I am not convinced that the world will ever “get back to normal”, and many people never get to experience any relative stability at all, but that is another issue entirely. It is possible that occult practices may in time be less faddish and may not get as much media attention, but to deny the occult substrata that has always existed is to deny the very human and persistent impulse to connect directly with the numinous and to support a sense of agency.
Which brings me to my second concern. I feel that the argument of crisis-based occultism has a whiff of racism and classism about it. The media doesn’t currently seem particularly interested in the fortunes of the botanica down the road. Given the reality that people all over the world engage in occult and magical practices of one sort or another, who, exactly, are these people who have temporarily lost their rational faculties and are turning to the occult as a last-ditch effort? Much of the reporting seems to be centered on White people, especially women, looking witchy fabulous on Instagram or White women who have started upscale astrology businesses or who are taking magical fancy baths (and nothing is wrong with a fancy bath!!). Does this stuff only get press because writers feel they can tell compelling stories about White people suddenly going nutty in this topsy turvy world? This line of reporting generally ignores established magical traditions and practices of people of color, and the intersectional aspects of what I call the New Witchcraft. Does this line of inquiry harbor a hope that one day these nice White folks will come back to their senses and fall in line, but everyone else can keep, you know, doing their thing? A recent Huffington Post piece covered a supposedly “new” trend of people using astrology and tarot cards to address mental health issues, driven partially by a lack of access to traditional mental health care providers. This is nothing new. Poor communities and communities of color have been using these techniques to help manage mental health and challenging domestic and financial conditions forever. I do wonder what concerns are actually shaping all these news stories, because for the record, White people have always done magic too.
We perceive that there is an occult revival going on right now because the media is generating a lot of stories about it, fashion trends reflect it, and spooky goods are being actively marketed to people. It may genuinely statistically be true that there is widening interest in the esoteric arts. We shouldn’t underestimate the role of media in helping to promote the cool seduction of the occult. Yet, it is worth considering that occult knowledge is more accessible than it has ever been. You can now complete a sophisticated astrological chart analysis with a phone app, order herbs and tinctures from specialists all over the world, or join an online tarot card study group, or even get your cards read on Twitch. You can take online courses on herbalism, and trade secrets of the Philosopher’s Stone with alchemists. You don’t have to be part of a special club, alternative religion or secret society to do these things anymore, and there are a variety of contexts in which people may wish to explore and experiment.
Sure, some of today’s spooky kids may well move on in a year or two, but it’s always been that way. How many teen witches and pimply faced demon conjurers end up dropping the whole enterprise by 25? But let’s not pretend that the return to a “rational” world, if that ever happens, will end people’s fascination with the occult. People will always do magic, people will always find ways to balance the universe in their favor, to tilt the luck plane, or to have conversations in dimensions we can’t see. This is because people are creative and complex. We are sensory, sensual beings having to make sense out of a range of stimuli while fumbling our way through all the shit that gets thrown at us. Eventually the media and marketing will shift its attention elsewhere, and we can only hope that our world will one day feel a bit brighter and less on the edge, but even then, the witches will still remain.